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Bad actress plays bad actress --- details at 11

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I'm going to be honest with you, dear readers. I haven't budgeted my time properly and now, faced with the problem of having to both watch and critique a two-and-a-half hour movie in approximately two-and-a-half hours, I've decided to try something new and exciting (and timesaving) --- the simultaneous viewing and reviewing of a film.

            What I know about Esther Kahn could fill maybe half of a very small thimble. I know it's screening Friday night at the Dryden and that its running time cracks the dreaded 140-minute barrier. A quick trip to the Internet Movie Database tells me the film has a very unusual cast, featuring actors from the US (Summer Phoenix), Great Britain (Ian Holm), and France (Emmanuelle Devos), as well as some that sound like they hail from other countries (Akbar Kurtha, László Szabó, Sef Naaktgeboren --- no bios were given online). The brief plotline available on the IMDB says Kahn is about a Jewish girl trying to become a stage star in Victorian London. And in goes the tape...

            A narrator tells us that the titular Esther Kahn was born in a crappy house in a crappy neighborhood. It looks like the beginning of the film shows Esther's youth, where we see the youngster imitating various members of her large family. Ten minutes into it and Esther, now played by Phoenix, is an unproductive member of said family (a bad thing during those poor times in the East End) who gets her ya-yas out by watching plays. While the rest of her siblings toil away in sweatshops, Esther tries out for The Merchant of Venice, and lands both a job as an understudy and acting lessons from one of her fellow understudies, Nathan Quellan (Holm).

            We're told Holm's character is a bad actor, which leads to a very interesting paradox when Esther's stage career begins to enjoy some success. Holm is a great actor playing a bad one. Phoenix is not a great actor, but I think she might be pretty well cast here. Then again, it's hard to say. Her British accent is rather rudimentary, but she seems adept at playing an actress who isn't really good at acting --- which might not really be acting at all. The biggest problem I have (other than the very sluggish pace) is we never really see Esther blossom as an actress, even though her talent is supposed to be growing. Instead, director Arnaud Desplechin shows Esther's big stage moments in slow motion, and with a very annoying third-person voiceover. Off the stage, Esther is just as stiff and wooden as she was when the film started. Her watery eyes may be capable of great things, but the rest of her is downright Frankenstein-esque.

            Speaking of Desplechin, he casts brother Fabrice in the role of a drama critic who deflowers Esther at Nathan's suggestion (because you can't act until you've lived, and you haven't lived until you've been deflowered). This happened right around the time Kahn started to become unbearable to both my bum and my brain (which, contrary to popular belief, are located nowhere near each other).

            What I do like about Kahn is the camera movement. Cinematographer Eric Gautier, who shot the claustrophobic art-porn film Intimacy and has worked with Desplechin numerous times, gets his camera whizzing around scenes and sets like it recently escaped from a David Fincher film. Thankfully, Gautier's photography is strong enough to offset the only other noticeable aspect of Kahn's technical package: Howard Shore's score, which ebbs and flows between blaring and non-existent without rhyme or reason.

            Empire is the first film produced under Universal's new Arenas Entertainment banner, which will target various Latino communities around the country. And what better way to kick the whole thing off than with a film packed full of head-spinning stereotypes? That's just what I would do if I ran things. There's nothing quite as refreshing as a tale of New York City that teaches us all blacks and Puerto Ricans live in the South Bronx, while Manhattan is swimming with evil white people.

            The name of the film is one of those fancy double-entendres that refers to both the drug empire of one Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo), as well as the actual narcotic he peddles in the South Bronx. Empire is Vic's own special heroin blend, which, he proudly tells us, is the purest around. See, each of the five area dealers gets their supply from a foofy kingpin (played in hilariously over-the-top style by a hilariously out-of-place Isabella Rossellini), but they can cut and distribute it in any manner they deems fit. There are occasional beat-downs and throw-downs due to turf overlap, but Vic and his crew don't really have too many problems.

            In addition to being quite the street entrepreneur, Vic also has a pregnant college girlfriend named Carmen (Delilah Cotto), who accepts his lifestyle despite the perceived danger and the constant admonitions from her mother (Sonia Braga). In school, Carmen befriends a '70s-chic nightmare (Denise Richards) who eventually introduces them to her investment banker boyfriend, Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), who hits it off with Vic almost immediately.

            Before you can ask, "Where the white women at?" Vic abandons his homeys, his family, his business, and his pregnant girlfriend so he can "go legit" by investing his large liquid fortune through Jack, who gives our hero a gorgeous loft apartment in SoHo and calls him "dawg."

            Now, there are two ways this story can end. We all know Jack is going to try to screw Vic over, because Empire is so clearly a melodramatic tale about Whitey's domination of various minorities. So the two options are: 1) Vic is oblivious to the un-greased reaming until it's too late, or 2) Vic sees it coming and turns the tables on Mr. Cracker-Ass Cracker. One way would be interesting and fun to watch. The other is what you'll get if you see Empire.

            Here's an example of how completely misguided Empire is: In one scene, the audience was howling with laughter when Vic blew off the head of his main rival. Then, two beats later, they were gasping in horror when one of Vic's cronies accidentally popped a cap up into an innocent little kid. Is this a joke? If it is, it's no funnier than Leguizamo's performance. He's good at playing hairdressers and cross-dressers and... well, you get the point. As far as playing a hard gangsta type, well, that's a completely different thing. On the Hollywood Scale of Hardness, Leguizamo ranks just above Andy Dick. His Vic even cries like a little bitch when he gets a flesh wound in an attempted street slaying. Being asked to like Leguizamo as a lead is enough of a chore, but to have his character be an unremorseful dick-slash-killer is taking it too far.

            Empire is the debut of writer-director Franc. Reyes (yes, that's the name Franc followed by a period), who frames his story with Leguizamo's clunky narration, which I'm assuming was inserted because Reyes knew his audience wouldn't be capable of following the exceedingly linear and formulaic plot without an omnipresent voiceover. If you want to see a classy, extremely well-done story about urban drug dealers, go home, flip on HBO, and wait for them to air The Wire again. If you want to see a bad Scarface knockoff, then, by all means, go see Empire.

Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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